Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

ABC's AA Slander: President Clinton and his former aides Sandy Berger and Madeline Albright are not the only ones to suffer at the hand of ABC’s “drama-ganda” about the run up to 9-11. American Airlines might also want to get its public relations people—and its litigators—ready to refute the show’s specious claims.

In an early scene, Mohammad Atta, the suicide pilot of one of the 9-11 planes, is seen at an American Airlines ticket counter. Warning lights flash on the screen and, according to one blogger who has seen the movie, “The AA employee called a supervisor who kind of shrugged and said, blithely, just let him through. The first employee, shocked, turned to her supervisor and said, shouldn’t we search him? The American Airlines supervisor responds, nah, just hold his luggage until he boards the plane.”

The only problem is that the incident in the 9-11 report on which that scene is based is different from the movie in several key respects: it happened at the airport in Portland, Me., not Boston, and more important, Atta was not trying to board an American flight, but one operated by USAirways.

This show is obviously a calculated insult to the Clinton administration and almost everyone involved in the attacks, but mostly—as Maureen Dowd points out today—it’s an insult to ABC’s viewers. Because by fictionalizing a tragedy that’s still fresh in a lot of memories, ABC is essentially saying that truth is not sufficiently dramatic, not sufficiently sexy.
So it’s been enhanced, distorted, “sexed up,” as they say in my new homeland, to make sure you don’t miss the moral of the story.
Paying for Castro Criticism: In July, Juan Manuel Cao, a reporter for Miami’s Channel 41, confronted Cuban president Fidel Castro about his government’s refusal to allow a well known doctor and dissident Hilda Molina, to leave the island and visit her son in Argentina. Castro’s response was to ask Cao whether someone was paying him to ask that question.

At the time, the ageing Cuban dictator sounded paranoid, or perhaps confused. Tinpot dictatorships and banana republics pay reporters to embarrass their opponents, but to suggest that someone from a western media outlet was in fact a government agent was absurd.

It was also, as it turns out, true. Because this morning’s Miami Herald reports that Cao was one of at least 10 Miami journalists paid by the U.S. government in exchange for anti-Castro reporting.

The president of the Miami Herald Co., Jesus Diaz, explains why his company severed its ties with three reporters who had worked for its El Nuevo Herald publication: “Even the appearance that your objectivity or integrity might have been impaired is something we can't condone, not in our business. I personally don’t believe that integrity and objectivity can be assured if any of our reporters receive monetary compensation from any entity that he or she may cover or have covered, but particularly if it’s a government agency.”

I just returned from Saint Petersburg, Russia, where a still maturing public relations industry is striving to eliminate the practice of paying for coverage. The industry leaders understand that pay-for-play can undermine the credibility of the media, one of the most important pillars of democracy. Some of them talked of the importance of conducting their business according to western, or U.S., standards.

Let’s hope they aim a little higher than that.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Smoke and Mirrors: Slate’s Ryan Grim offers an excellent piece on the Bush administration’s evaluation of its own anti-drug advertising campaign. After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the administration commissioned a piece of research that appears to prove that the ads actually increased the likelihood that young people would smoke pot. Or as the researchers put it, "greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana."

Grim thinks the research shows that the campaign didn’t work. But I think he’s making a mistaken assumption about the purpose of the campaign.

Some big social marketing campaigns are an honest effort to address societal problems. Anti-smoking efforts like the “truth” campaign fall into that category, as do some of the AIDS education efforts underwritten by the states and by not for profit groups in the late 80s and 90s.

But a great many social marketing campaigns have a different objective: to convince voters that government is advocating “proper” behavior. Abstinence only sex education is a great example. Nobody seriously believes that abstinence-only education will reduce teen pregnancy or prevent the spread of STDs. That’s not the point. The point is to be seen by moralists to be delivering a “positive” moral message to the target audience. If members of the target audience ignore that message, the consequences are their problem.

The anti-marijuana ads are, I suspect, a similar case. They are not designed to discourage kids from smoking pot; they’re designed to make sure kids know that smoking pot is WRONG. So the government sat on the results of the study for 18 months—spending another $220 million on ads it knew were not effective—not because it likes wasting money, but because the money wasn’t wasted. Its supporters, particularly those who believe pot smoking is immoral, want the government to lecture people about the immorality of smoking pot.

The lecture is the point of the exercise, the results are irrelevant.
Little Ditty, About Jack and Amanda: Strumpette Amanda Chapel, whose view of the future of the public relations industry gets bleaker by the day, has fallen into bed with Jack O’Dwyer, a May-December romance that leads to the publication on Amanda’s site of a guest article by the curmudgeonly commentator.

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t agree with Jack about a lot of things, and his suggestion that the Council of PR Firms is a symptom of the “European-ization” of American public relations is particularly odd.

Jack’s thesis appears to be that the Council, with 100-plus members (most of them smaller, U.S.-based independents) is in “bankrolled mostly” by Omnicom, Interpublic, WPP, Havas and Publicis—the five major communications holding companies—and that as “WPP, Publicis and Havas have dominated the Council, so to [sic] have European attitudes of secrecy” (the U.S.-owned Interpublic and Omnicom have presumably been either overpowered or outsmarted by the fiendish foreigners).

I can’t help thinking there is a little xenophobia in evidence here. These “European attitudes of secrecy” are in fact the result of Sarbanes-Oxley, an American regulation so poorly thought out that it appears to have caused a result entirely the opposite of what was intended. But beyond that, I don’t find the European PR business to be particularly secretive: there have been PR agency rankings in most of the major European markets, and in most cases local firms now complain because the American agencies withdrew from those rankings and rendered them meaningless.

Equally puzzling is Jack’s assertion that the trade press in Europe “supports” business rather than “covering” it. We could have an interesting semantic discussion about that—I wouldn’t have wasted 20 years of my life writing about PR if I didn’t support the industry, but I think being supportive of the industry requires criticism of those aspects that are misguided or unethical—but the terminology is not the point: the European media generally are much more hostile in their attitude towards business than the American media.

And finally, Jack points to Tim Dyson, head of Next Fifteen, who has continued to report financial information despite Sarbanes-Oxley. Tim, of course, is English. Next Fifteen is a British company.

Look, I’m as unhappy about the pathological secrecy of big PR agencies as Jack is. I think it hurts our business. And I’m also disappointed that the Council of PR Firms has never lived up to its potential. But to depict this as the result of “European-ization” is a strange distortion of what is, I’m afraid, an American phenomenon.
The ABCs of 9/11: Disney is the center of a maelstrom of criticism in the blogosphere—it’s beginning to seep through to the mainstream media—and from Democratic leaders for its upcoming ABC “docudrama” presenting the Republican spin on the events leading up to 9/11.

There are echoes of the CBS biopic of Ronald Reagan, which was withdrawn after conservative commentators claimed it was insufficiently hagiographical—except in this case ABC seems determined to press ahead regardless of the attacks on the show’s credibility.

There doesn’t seem to be much question that this is an overtly partisan move on Disney’s part. It commissioned a well-known conservative activist to write the screenplay, and it has distributed advance copies to Rush Limbaugh and right-wing bloggers while denying them to the Democratic politicians portrayed in the movie and to progressive bloggers.

Moreover, the network has been alerted to numerous factual inaccuracies, and simply refused to make changes. So this is not a case of being careless with the truth; it's a deliberate political maneuver.

So is this a smart move by Disney?

Any boycott of ABC, its affiliates and its advertisers is likely to have a minimal impact—most boycotts are ineffective, except at generating ink.

So I guess that if the movie succeeds in throwing some momentum back behind a floundering GOP and prevents the Democrats from retaking the House this fall—something political analysts had considered increasingly likely—Disney might have bought itself some friends in high places. But if the Democrats do as well as predicted, they’re not likely to forget something this brazen.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Spinning the Discussion About Spin: Former government information service employee and later deputy director of communications for the Labour Party Lance Price uses the columns of The Guardian to bemoan the fact that “spin has become a term of political abuse to be used against Blair’s Labour party just as ‘sleaze’ was used to such effect against the Tories under John Major.

“As a result, perfectly honourable people find themselves traduced for the sins of others. The innocent victims are hard-working civil servants doing a necessary and unglamorous job.” (The piece if part of mediaguardian, which requires registration but is free.)

Responding to yet another attack on government spending on communications, Price makes all the necessary points. “Take the Central Office of Information, whose PR budget “soared” to £322m last year. Much of that money was spent, we are told, advertising flagship policies such as tax credits and extra help for pensioners. Since when was it ‘spin’ to inform the less well-off in society of the benefits to which they are entitled in the hope that they will claim their due…

“How many calls, I wonder, have government press officers had to field in the past 24 hours demanding to know why there are so many press officers? The public has a right to know what the government is doing in its name, and Whitehall has a duty to provide that information. The figures on which the Tories based their attack were provided by the very people they chose to malign. They would have been justifiably outraged if they couldn't get the answers they wanted.”

But the comments posted at the end of the story make it clear that most readers aren’t buying Price’s, err, spin.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

No Benefit: If BP (below) has earned the benefit of the doubt, the tobacco industry has not, as this apparently flawed survey and the coverage it received last week seem to show.